PROVIDENCE — Despite having an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, Rhode Island Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio on Monday said he will introduce legislation to ban the carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds.
The NRA has strongly opposed the legislation in past years when it was introduced by Senator Harold M. Metts, a Providence Democrat. But Metts lost a Democratic primary in September, and Ruggerio told the Globe Monday he would introduce the bill himself in the legislative session that begins in January.
“Unless you are an officer of the law and required to carry it, I don’t see why anyone has any business carrying a gun on school property where there are young people,” Ruggerio said during a wide-ranging year-end interview with the Globe. “I just think it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Ruggerio called that legislation, which makes an exception for law enforcement and school-hired security officers, “a priority for the Senate.”
Governor Gina M. Raimondo took executive action in 2018 to ban guns on school grounds, but she told the Globe on Friday that codifying that ban in law is her top priority for gun bills in 2021.
Meanwhile, gun control proposals are expected to receive a warmer reception in the House than they did during the tenure of Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Democrat who had an “A” rating from the NRA and who lost his Cranston district seat in the November elections. Warwick Democrat K. Joseph Shekarchi, who has a “D” rating from the NRA, is poised to become the new Speaker.
“We are more optimistic in general,” said Linda D. Finn, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence.
The coalition backed 37 representatives who vowed to support bans on high-capacity magazines, “assault-style” weapons, and concealed guns on school grounds, she said.
“We feel there has been a huge change in the House, with representatives who not only support the bills but will push to get them done,” said Finn, a former state representative. “Hopefully, there will be other bills that get votes in the House now with Mattiello gone.”
Finn noted that while he has an “A” rating from the NRA, Ruggerio once testified in support of a bill to take guns away from domestic abusers.
Frank Saccoccio, president and lobbyist for the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, said the proposed ban on concealed weapons on school grounds “doesn’t do anything but hurt law-abiding citizens.”
“If you’re carrying a gun, you’re carrying a gun for personal protection, so why would your personal protection stop on school grounds?” he said.
Saccoccio said someone with a concealed-carry firearm could end up protecting others from a shooter.
He said that 30 years ago, state lawmakers allowed an exception in the law for those with concealed-carry permits on school grounds. “Since then, there have been zero instances of a concealed carry holder coming onto school grounds and hurting anyone,” he said. “Why are we introducing these bills?”
But Raimondo said she is hopeful that the change in House leadership will result in closing the “loophole” that allows concealed carrying of weapons on school grounds. “Teachers and students are struggling,” she said. “At bare minimum, they deserve to know that they are in a gun-free zone when in school.”
Raimondo said another priority is the banning of “assault-style” weapons.
Ruggerio said other gun bills will be vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he said the new committee chairwoman, Senator Cynthia Coyne, a Barrington Democrat and former State Police lieutenant, “probably knows more about weapons than anybody in this building.”
On the environmental front, Raimondo on Monday announced that Rhode Island will join Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., in a major effort to reduce transportation emissions.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative will set a cap on vehicle pollution and require hundreds of fuel distributors to buy permits for any carbon dioxide they produce beyond the cap. Companies are likely to pass those costs on to drivers, causing gas prices to rise 5 cents to 9 cents a gallon when the rules take effect in 2023.
“We share the goal of reducing carbon emissions and addressing the urgent crisis of climate change,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing the details of this proposal in the upcoming legislative session.”
Ruggerio said he will again introduce legislation to ban stores from offering single-use plastic bags and penalize violators, as a way to reduce marine pollution. He’d proposed the Plastic Waste Reduction Act in the last session and in 2019, but the legislation didn’t pass the House.
Ruggerio said it’s time. “I think it’s a great environmental issue, and I think you need some consistency throughout the state,” he said. “Some communities have different regulations, and I think you need some consistency so people won’t get confused.”
Nursing homes have been the hardest hit during the pandemic, and in Ruggerio’s district in North Providence, Golden Crest Nursing Centre and Hopkins Manor were among those with the highest cases and deaths tolls.
“I lost a lot of friends, not just constituents, but lifelong friends,” Ruggerio said. “The worst thing was that their families could not go see them while they were sick.”
He said he was unable to pay his respects when he lost friends. “It was just a disheartening situation like I’ve never seen in my whole life,” he said. “I feel bad for these people. It’s probably one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”
Ruggerio said he would have liked if the governor had acted sooner to allow nursing home visits by family members deemed essential caregivers. But both he and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, said they are supportive of how the governor has managed the crisis.
“I give the governor a lot of credit for making very tough decisions,” Ruggerio said.
McCaffrey said the Senate will continue meeting at Rhode Island College until the Department of Health says it’s OK to return to the State House. Renting Sapinsley Hall through the end of June and paying for catering, security, and other services is expected to cost $523,827.
With a COVID-19 vaccine beginning to become available, elected Latino leaders are calling for Rhode Island to prioritize densely populated areas in cities such as Central Falls, Providence, and Pawtucket. McCaffey said the Department of Health will probably want to get the vaccine to “hot spots” quickly, but he said those decisions should be left to the “experts.”
When asked his New Year’s wish, McCaffrey said: “That everyone takes the vaccine.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.